I always find it interesting to see pundits evoke history in ways that lose touch with the past. It’s a fairly common form of rhetoric that speaks volumes through omission. In an opinion piece from August 28th, after having seen a Spider-Man figure on a skateboard and a Hulk on a motorcycle in a local toy store, Swedish opinion writer Fredrik Strage calls for a boycott of toys that do not portray superheroes in a way that he deems “authentic.” The headline that appears on the Google search results page goes so far as to claim that the superheroes are being “abused” as toys. Strage makes a few main claims in his text that are worth a closer look: the toys he objects to present a “skewed image” of the characters; superhero toys must relate to a specific, given “mythology”; and the superhero-makers have a responsibility to consumers.
In Strage’s example, children are given a “skewed image” because certain toys “ignore the superheroes’ histories and abilities. It might be worth recalling here that superheroes are fictional beings with superhuman abilities or skills that as a matter of course take it upon themselves to protect the status quo with violence. That alone should suggest that they are prone to present a skewed image of reality and tend to implicitly paint our world as the best of all possible worlds.
He also writes that they’ve been “beloved by generations” — which is true, to a point, but they’re not static. Many fans view these characters as unified wholes that follow an unbroken biographical line. But if you want to do that you also have to set history aside: these characters are represented by people, in relation to their contemporary context. Change is a part of their history. New writers, artists, and editors add or discard things as needed. The comics differ from the movies, which in turn differ from the cartoons and TV shows. There is no unified mythology other than whatever fans and publishers agree on as canon at any given time, but that’s a mutually agreed-upon lie and not something that exists on its own.
The question, then, is which version of these characters should be considered “unskewed” and who has the interpretive prerogative.* If superheroes never really changed, we’d still be living with a misogynistic bully who kills in Superman, for example. But we all come to these characters at different times in their publication history, and it’s understandable that the version we’re familiar with stands out as somehow more “true” than others. However, claims about who or what certain characters ”really” are or are not are often used as a reason among superhero boosters to harass or threaten people who disagree or who aren’t like them — women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, for example. The idea that deviations from a certain (most often white- and male-centered) norm are politicized deviations tends to be supported by claims that a historical mythology is being upended.
As for the idea that the companies creating these stories and selling these toys have a responsibility, Strage’s text omits something central: Marvel, DC, and other purveyors of superhero fictions are profit-driven. They do things they can make money off. They don’t really care if some fans don’t like the accessories given to their toy superheroes, as long as they sell. Despite Strage’s claims to the contrary, seeing a Spider-Man on a skateboard is in no way comparable to a Muslim seeing Muhammad portrayed as a “roundabout dog” (a sort of Swedish street art installation that was popular a few years ago); the former is, at most, a company using its intellectual property in a way intended to combine selling points and thus increase revenue, the latter a calculated attempt to provoke a specific group of people.
It might be worth giving the writer the benefit of the doubt here, in that the piece seems rather stream of consciousness and is often quite self-contradictory. Maybe it was put together last minute on a slow news day. That would explain how the argument has little relation to the thing that prompted the piece itself. After all, Strage writes that the “Hulk-hog” was “pirated crap from China” just a paragraph after having written that the “crafters of these tales” have a “responsibility not to hawk stuff that ruins the mythology.” These two things have nothing to do with each other, but let’s set that aside for now and consider the latter claim. The crafters of superhero ”tales” for the most part have little to do with toy production. Historically speaking, and to this day, the stories have been written and drawn by people working under pretty shoddy conditions. Not only is it unfair to blame people working for one entity for the actions of merch pirates, but it’s perhaps even more unfair to blame often precarious laborers for the actions of big corporate entities.
In constructing his argument, Strage compares today’s superheroes with the gods of Ancient Greece (a common claim that I don’t have the time or space to address here, aside from saying that it’s a big claim with little good support — but more on that as I get further along in my book about how we talk about superheroes): they aren’t just entertaining, but also edifying. That the lessons they teach are rooted in contemporary political landscapes and not in antiquity seems to be less interesting in this context. What the lessons they teach consist of is less interesting than the fact that they teach them.
Anticipating criticism, Strage mounts a defense against accusations of “nerd rage.” He likes the Batmobile, so he can see himself buying that — even saying that he’ll be there, standing in line when the next Batman movie’s official Batmobile is launched, like a “responsible parent.” But notwithstanding his protests, the entire text hinges on a sort of “nerd rage.” Strage calls for a boycott because a pirated version of a multinational corporation’s intellectual property doesn’t live up to what he considers to be “authentic.” This is where the superhero mythology comes in, for as those familiar with Roland Barthes know, in myth, “things lose the memory that they were once made.” In the process of screaming into the void, Strage takes the interpretive prerogative for himself and, in so doing, lifts these characters and toys out of the history of their own making and of these specific toys’ way into that toy store, and denies them their economic and political context. Neither official nor pirated versions of the characters are allowed to exist outside of the image Strage has built up around them, and that image has no room for the messy past and present in which superheroes continue to be mired.
* Although not really. We all receive these characters and stories and make meaning out of them in our own ways. That meaning-making is no more and no less “true” than any official canon, popular history, or academic study.